Ask yourself, “Is this thought helping me go in the direction I want to go?” Think back to your epitaph. Look at the consequences of being your thoughts, rather than having your thoughts. Simply allow the thought to be there and keep moving.
You may have heard of a type of spam email called “phishing.” The initial ploy in phishing is actually quite simply: you are send an email message that results in a powerful emotional response. For example, you are informed that someone appears to be using your credit card illegally or there is a new virus out there that from which you are not protected. The email asks you for private information like you SSN, credit card number, date of birth, and driver’s license number so they can help keep you protected. Of course, this is all so they can steal your identity. What if your mind sometimes acts like this phisher? If can put an upsetting message in front of you and get you to impulsively attach to a thought, emotion, memory, or body sensation. Like the phisher, your mind will tell you that what it has to say is the absolute truth and requires a response. Like the email, you don’t have to respond to your internal experience. Slow down, step back. See if you can notice where responding will take you. You might be able to start to notice when your mind is throwing these at you, just as you’ve learned to spot spam emails. These experiences probably have somethings in common. Are they all-or-none, negative, provocative, urgent? Remember that the mind is not you, the mind is a tool. But it isn’t helpful tool 100% of the time.
This exercise will help you develop self-compassion. It’s vital to be aware that defusing from our thoughts should not involve self-ridicule or being hard on ourselves for having such thoughts. You are not ridiculous. You are human, and human language and cognition are like a tiger we’re riding that inevitably leads us into some dangerous territory. None of us can entirely prevent unhelpful thoughts from forming in our minds.
Take a difficult thought that goes back a long way in your history, and picture yourself as young as you can while having that thought, or others like it. Take a little time to picture what you looked like at that age-what your hair was like, what you dressed like. Then, in your imagination, have those words come out of that child in the voice of you as a child. Actually, try to do it in his or her little voice. If you are in a private place, try to reproduce the voice out loud-otherwise, try to hear it in your mind. And then focus on what you might do if you were actually in such a situation and your goal was to be there for that child. Picture yourself helping the child, such as by giving him or her a hug. Then ask yourself, “Metaphorically, how can I do that for myself now?” and see if some useful ideas come up.
Now write the thought on a small piece of paper and hold it up. Look at it the way you might look at a precious and fragile page from an ancient manuscript. These words are an echo of your history. Even if the thought is painful, ask yourself if you would be willing to honor that history by choosing to carry this piece of paper with you. If you can get to “yes,” put it care fully in your pocket or purse and let it come along for the ride. During the days you carry it, every so often pat your purse or pocket or wherever you keep it, as if to acknowledge that it is part of your journey, and it is welcome to come along.
Imagine writing down your thought on the palm of your hand (you don’t have to actually write it as long as you know it is there). Then bring your hand close to your face. In that posture, it is hard to see anything else-even your hand and the thought written on it in imagination are hard to see. This is a physical metaphor for fusion: thought dominating over your awareness.
Now move your hand with the thought still on it straight out away from your face. It is a bit easier to see other things in addition to your hand. Now move your hand with the thought on it just a little to the side so you can focus on it if you need to but you can also see ahead clearly. Those actions simulate the stance you want to establish toward your thoughts. Whenever you catch yourself being dominated by a thought, note how close to you it is. Is it like that hand in your face, or off to the side? If it is in your face, see if you can move it off to the side. Note that you do not get rid of the thought this way-in fact, you see it as a thought even more clearly. But in this posture you can do many other things as well, which is the core point of defusion.
Put the thought out in front of you and ask some questions about it. If it had a size, how big would it be? If it had a shape, what shape would it have? If it had a color, what color would it have? If it had speed, how fast would it go? If it had power, how much power would it have? If it had a surface tex ture, how would it feel to the touch? If it had an internal consistency, what would that be?
If after answering these questions the power of the thought is unabated, focus on your reactions to the thought-especially your judgments, predictions, negative emotions, or evaluations (e.g., “I don’t want that! I despise it!”). Hold those in your mind. Then pick a core reaction that seems central. Move the first thought to the side and place the core reaction in front of you. Now answer the same questions: If it had a size, how big would it be? And so forth.
After you’ve answered them all, peek back at the first thought. Is it the same size, shape, color, speed, power, texture, and consistency? Often you will find that it has changed in ways that give it less of an impact.
This method is powerful when you’re having a really sticky thought. Turn it into a sentence and try singing it-out loud if you are alone, in your head if you have company. Any tune will do. My default is “Happy Birthday.” Don’t have worry about trying to be clever about the wording, like coming up with a rhyming scheme. This is not going to get you on America’s Got Talent! Just repeat the thought to the tune. See if you can find a thought that is nagging y now and try it. Try different tunes; sing it fast or slow. The measure of “success” is not that the thought goes away, or loses all punch and becomes unbelievable. It is that you can see it as a thought, and do so just a bit more clearly.
Now listen to your thoughts for a bit, and when your mind starts to chatter, answer back with something like “Thanks for that thought, George. Really, thank you.” If you speak to your mind dismissively, it will continue right on problem-solving. Be sincere. You might want to add, “I really get that you are trying to be of use, so thank you for that. But I’ve got this covered.” If you’re alone, you could even say this out loud. Note that your mind will probably push back with thoughts like That’s silly. That won’t help! Respond again with, “Thanks for that thought, George. Thank you. I really do see how you are trying to be of use.” You could also even invite more comments with dispassionate curiosity: “Anything else you have to say?”